Edwards rallies union support: 'Elections have consequences'

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards rallied his core base of education union support Saturday with a preview of his 2019 re-election stump speech, urging teachers and school workers to maintain a "sense of purpose" about the governor's race.

The Democratic leader gave the Louisiana Federation of Teachers a defense of his record since taking office and a pledge of educator pay raises. The receptive crowd was packed with Edwards supporters who backed his election bid three years earlier and promised to help him reach a second term.

"Elections have consequences," he told the luncheon. "Don't ever think it doesn't matter."

Edwards, whose wife was a teacher and whose daughter is an elementary school counselor, talked of working to protect teacher pensions, seeking ways to add security guards at schools and gearing up for a push to boost education salaries.

The governor repeated his plan to seek a $1,000 pay raise for teachers and a $500 salary bump for school support staff such as teacher aides and cafeteria workers in next year's legislative session. He said that proposal will be part of a three-year plan to raise salaries to the Southern regional average by 2022, along with additional block grant increases to school districts.

The average teacher earns $49,745 in Louisiana. The governor said that's about $2,200 less than the regional average. The proposal for the upcoming budget year for the raises and other increases to districts, Edwards told reporters after the speech, would cost about $135 million.

Beyond education issues, Edwards touted his expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program, rewrite of criminal sentencing laws and passage of a tax package aimed at ending cycles of repeated budget shortfalls. He noted Louisiana is expected to have a $300 million surplus left over from last year.

"When you run for governor, you've got to convince people to take a chance on you. When you run for re-election, they have to know they're better off than they were when you were elected," Edwards said. "We can make that case every single day."

The governor struck at Republican criticism of his tenure in office, including suggestions the surplus indicates Edwards pushed too many taxes as governor.

"Anything I do they have to attack. Anything that happens while I'm governor has to be bad, so they started saying, 'Well, surpluses are bad,'" Edwards told the crowd to laughter. "If that's how we're going to fight this next election, I like my chances."

Republicans have targeted Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the conservative Deep South, for ouster since his long-shot election win in 2015. GOP leaders and lawmakers say Edwards is out of step with the majority of his state's voters on taxes, spending and other issues.

One Republican has announced a challenge to Edwards so far. Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone said he's set aside $5 million of his own cash to fund his campaign. Also eyeing the race are U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who said he'll decide by Dec. 1, and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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